After their first seasons, The Good Place, You’re the Worst, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend all shifted the direction of their shows. These felt like bold moves, leaving major portions of their initial premises behind them. These shows dove headfirst into unexpected scenarios, often tackling dark topics. As a comedy show grows into new seasons, how much can it change, and what remains consistent?
This matters because the definition of TV comedies is changing to encompass a wider range of material. The sitcom paradigm still exists, but many comedy shows are playing around with tone, length, and the types of stories that can be told in a comedic context. It’s an especially tall order to deliver laughs and thoughtful plots, and these shows make it look easy.
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THE GOOD PLACE
What do these shows gain by shifting? After the initial surprise of these twists, these shifts engage the audience more fully in their upcoming storyline and make them re-examine the seasons before. The twists allow for more challenges to deepen the characters’ arcs, and show another side of the original themes.
The Good Place is a high-concept comedy, which has incredible plotting, moving the target every episode. In the first season, Eleanor dies and is mistakenly sent to heaven. She spends the season trying to become a better person with the help of her friend Chidi. In season two, we know that Eleanor, Chidi, and two more of their friends are really in hell, disguised as heaven. Their memories are wiped, so their progress from last season is forgotten.
As creator Michael Schur says, “The idea was to do a show about what makes a good person.” This remains consistent, even as the setting and short-term goals change. This core theme, ethics, is tangible throughout. The stakes feel higher, but the core group is still learning ethics. The core question of how to be a good person is still unanswered, with many episodes diving into moral murkiness.
The second season threatens to send Eleanor and her friends to traditional hell, where they’d be physically tortured for eternity. But the physical context is grounded by a familiar arc of an ethics class. This time, the humans are teaching ethics to the demon Michael. The theme is sharpened since it remains consistent while the other locations and goals are changing.
YOU’RE THE WORST
You’re The Worst is about Gretchen and Jimmy, people who pride themselves on being detached and mean, who fall in love. The first season shows the couple make the decision to become exclusive and finally move in together.
In the second season, Gretchen’s depression flares up, and Jimmy struggles to help her when she withdraws from him.
The best twists feel like a shock but have clues in retrospect. In these instances, the dark material has been underneath the jokes all along. Here, Gretchen and Jimmy bond over their self-destructive party behavior. They know they’re dysfunctional, but Jimmy is surprised when he finds out that Gretchen’s depression had been spurring many of their antics. As actor Aya Cash says about Gretchen – “A lot her “fun” things that she does are self-medicating. So, it’s all tied together.” Before, Jimmy was having fun, and Gretchen was doing the same activities as part of her struggle to feel alive.
So the tension of the first season was freedom vs a relationship. In the second season, the couple is more committed, but their flaws and illnesses are more present. The tension is love vs depression. Jimmy is constantly figuring out how he can help Gretchen, or if he can help her at all.
The depression arc is heavy and empathetically executed. The show is hilarious throughout and it could easily have continued as a hang-out comedy. But instead, it tackled depression, giving their core relationship a reason to separate, and challenging their characters.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend presents mental illness in its third season; lead character Rebecca is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Both You’re the Worst and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are romantic comedies where the leads are officially diagnosed with a mental illness. The shows are separate from each other and tackle the illnesses differently. But they’re smart to point out that the behaviors that are fun and exciting in fiction – reckless partying, erratic behavior, depending on a romance to fix a life – are unhealthy patterns that could be linked to mental illness.
In Crazy Ex Girlfriend’s first two seasons, there are hints to Rebecca’s diagnosis – “Crazy” is in the title after all. But it’s played for laughs, or mentioned only briefly. Rebecca excuses her own wild behavior by saying it’s in the name of love. In the season two theme song Rebecca sings “I’m just a girl in love. I can’t be held responsible for my actions. I have no underlying issues to address, I’m certifiably cute and adorably obsessed.”
After seasons of pursuing her old boyfriend Josh, Rebecca catches him. She should be happy. They’re about to get married. But he leaves her at the altar, and she swears revenge. Soon, Rebecca unravels, without a romance to pin her energy on. She tries to sabotage her life and attempts suicide. She’s diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and starts a new journey of recovery.
The stakes are similar to those in You’re the Worst – romances, happiness, and mental health. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, removing Josh from the central narrative feels bold. It makes the story feel shaggy, realistic. Rebecca’s arc – pinning her full happiness on romance, and being disappointed – convinces the audience of the falseness of the conventional romantic comedy narrative.
If these shows were strong to begin with, why did they shift? They didn’t need to. But they raised stakes, challenged the audience, and tested their characters. Some of these twists feel like they’re folding their shows inside out, and show the audience the messy stitches behind the pretty exterior.
If these shows had started with these twists upfront, we’d miss out on a lot of the delight of the twists. By virtue of being comedies, the audience expects a good time. And after a season of laughs and more light-hearted material, the audience is attached to the characters. They’re along for the ride for the darker material that might have been off-putting if it was shown from the get-go.
These shows find consistency in their characters and their themes. After these surprises, the shows kept going. You’re The Worst tackled PTSD from the point of view of a cherished side character. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend holds Rebecca accountable for her actions. The Good Place finds another setting that feels like it’s turning the world upside-down. These shows are more ambitious than traditional comedies, and we’re a more thoughtful audience because of their risks.
Charlotte Stauffer is an Atlanta-born screenwriter. She’s currently working at the Georgia Film Academy, and running a table read series called The Page On Stage with the Atlanta Film Society. She can be found on Twitter @goodwonky and instagram at @charlielucile.
Photo credit: NBC